Family Affair: `You go with your heart'

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The Independent Culture
Andrea Levy, 43, was born in England after her parents moved here from Jamaica in 1948. She is the author of three books, `Every Light in the House Burnin' ', `Never Far from Nowhere' and `Fruit of the Lemon', which will be published on 11 March by Review. Her partner, Bill Mayblin, 50, is a graphic designer. He has two children, aged 22 and 20. Bill and Andrea live in north London

Andrea

It was not an easy choice for me to go out with a white man. For a black woman to be in a relationship with a white man was still thought of as a big problem for some time after I'd met Bill. People wanted to know why I'd done it, as if I'd made a political decision. Somebody asked me had I really thought about it? All I could say was that Bill was simply the nicest man I had ever met. What else could I say? Without sounding soppy, I was with Bill because I had fallen in love with him.

It was the early Eighties: the black British identity was growing. It was very different to the England that my parents arrived in 50 years ago. My dad was one of the pioneers who came over to England on the Windrush; my mum came over six months later. I was born here and I grew up in Highbury in London. My parents thought of England as a cold Jamaica. They knew all about Britain; they felt completely British. But they hadn't come to the country they imagined. They weren't accepted, which they dealt with by keeping their heads down. They tried to be as English as possible and felt ashamed about who they were. Not getting ideas above your station was the mantra of our household.

I started life with that sense of inferiority. I felt I was different and not good enough because I was black. Kids today don't quite realise how it was to be the only black child in the class in an inner-London school. As I got older, the politics of being black changed. "Young, Gifted and Black" was playing on the radio, and the African-American movement was talking about being black and proud. I'd say "I am English". Now to say you are black and British is one thing, but to say you're English. Woah! Somehow being English conjures up a certain colonial way of thinking, like tea on the lawn and old ladies cycling through the mist. People say to me, "Do you feel that you belong?" I say, "No, but that doesn't stop me from liking where I grew up." Liking fish and chips and Bernard Bresslaw, and supporting Arsenal doesn't make you English but they are identification points.

I grew more politicised about being black. I met white men who didn't want to go out with me because I was black, and white men for whom having a black girlfriend was a status symbol - their credentials as a non-racist.

When I first met Bill I was in that wonderful bubble of madness of being in love. What I liked about him was that he was so sensitive and intelligent and that he was interested in me as a person, not as an exotic specimen. When reality hit, the skeletons came clacking out of the cupboard. There was pressure from both sides and many more moments when you're ill at ease with family or friends. Like when you meet a distant cousin for the first time and you wonder how they see you. At times I felt defensive about being with Bill. I have heard other black people justify going out with white people by saying "I met him before I was politically aware". That seems ridiculous.

Despite everything, Bill and I got on really well and my relationship with him gave me a firm footing from which to explore life and the confidence to write books. I had thought that my history started when my dad got off the Windrush. But some years ago, I went with Bill to Jamaica. I realised that I belonged somewhere, which was such a relief. We stayed with my family and went to parts of Jamaica where there weren't any tourists. People would stare at Bill's white face, which was funny. Sometimes they were nicer to him than they were to me.

I decided not to have children quite early on, and I've never wavered. Bill has two children so being with him has enabled me to have his children in my life which has been rewarding. There are still times when being in a mixed relationship is difficult but you marry the person you love and you do what is right for you. You go with your heart.

Bill

The day I met this wonderful, vibrant person, Andrea, I thought, "Wow!" I came from a lefty background and thought my anti-racist credentials were pretty damn good. I was probably quite arrogant.

I had never really thought about the colour of my skin: we white people think that ours is the norm from which deviation is measured. Being with Andrea has made me realise that I have an ethnicity. I am a white, middle- class male, and this society is built around people like me.

My relationship has changed me. I now know that being black is more difficult than I had thought it was; it is not a grand cause, it's a daily grind. I also became aware that I mustn't get upset about Andrea's anxieties about being with a white man. I knew I had to allow her the space of working that out.

In Jamaica I went around plantation houses as a tourist, and the history of slavery made me feel how German tourists must feel in Auschwitz. I became aware of my history as Andrea became aware of hers. At times that makes me feel uncomfortable. But you have to be able to feel proud of who you are.

The tensions we've experienced aren't from a rampant racism. It's an institutionalised racism. It's easy for stereotypes to develop and discrimination to happen without anything ever being said. Now when I go into the countryside outside London I feel quite alien. For a black person, the country is a very different England where you get strange looks. Because of being with Andrea, I feel this is not where I belong.

The Stephen Lawrence case has forced people to think quite hard about every aspect of racism. I don't think I have to apologise to Andrea for the actions of other people. But I do think I have to carry the knowledge of what white racism has done over the years. Ultimately, we're just two human beings getting on with our lives together, but when we talk about racial issues I realise I have to run to keep up with Andrea.

My relationship with Andrea had changed me profoundly. The fact that I am a white man sharing a life with a black woman has enriched my life enormously. But, of course, I'm thinking of Andrea the person. We talk about everything; it's a very symbiotic relationship.

People used to say to us "How can you live and work together?" I used to wonder how was it possible for people to communicate well if they didn't spend so much time together. I am grateful for our relationship. I am also bursting with pride.

Interviews by

Ann McFerran

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